THE COURAGE OF HARPER LEE

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I was jazzed and completely dazzled when I heard the news. Everyone was. After more than fifty years no less a source than the Associated Press confirmed on February 3 that Harper Lee would be publishing what they referred to as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the finest novels ever written. The only novel Harper Lee ever published. The publishing news of a lifetime.

All great authors leave us wanting more, and there is no question that Harper Lee is among the greatest for not just for creating characters of immense sympathy and depth but for crafting a story of tremendous resonance to time and place. It is a book that illuminates not just vicious injustice but has at its core a celebration of kindness and decency. It was and is and will remain a work of remarkable courage. Like only a handful of others—The Origin of the Species, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Silent Spring—it’s a book that changed the world. So many people have said as such far more elegantly than I.

I knew, everyone knew, that Harper Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964, shortly after the initial publication of the book in 1960.  I didn’t and don’t know much about her. But here’s what’s very clear: Harper Lee said what she wanted to say in Mockingbird the way she wanted to say it.   It is equally clear that she has long valued her privacy. She chose to share To Kill a Mockingbird. To my mind when an author publishes a book, the author is reaching out to the world. The published book is almost a gift, an offering. With readers, a connection is formed, a partnership that completes and recreates the book time and time again. But to me, that’s where the partnership ends. I don’t have a right to know what an author—or any one else for that matter–eats for breakfast or what they might think about Kanye hopping up on the stage once again at the Grammy Awards.

There are precious few of us who can write a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird. But if nothing else, all of us are the authors of own lives. We cherish the ability to actively, or sometimes subconsciously, craft our own myths; to tell our own stories they way we want them told. All of us also have the right to keep some things private, to keep our own secrets for our own reasons.

This thought of privacy and personal secrets is true whether someone is as quiet as Harper Lee or as exuberantly out there as Lady Gaga.  Beware, be cautious. Most public people, who talk about themselves constantly, are fueling an image for the public. We should never make the mistake of thinking we know who they really are or what they really think. We most emphatically do not. For some people their public persona becomes an extension of their craft. That’s fine. But obviously that’s not true for everyone. I don’t think it should be.

It didn’t take long to discover the AP actually had it wrong about the new Harper Lee book. Quite wrong. The “new” book wasn’t new. It seemed that it had been thought lost, and recently been rediscovered. More troublingly, there are murmurs that Harper Lee herself is quite frail, with diminished eyesight and hearing. Her sister Alice Lee, long her attorney and protector, has recently died. It seems as well that Harper Lee’s editor at HarperCollins has never spoken to her directly but has dealt only with her friend and attorney, Tonja Carter and her literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg.

Although the forthcoming book features the adult Scout and other characters from Mockingbird, apparently it was not conceived as sequel. According to reports on ABC News, the book was written prior to Mockingbird itself. According to a quote from Ms. Lee published in a HarperCollins press release and quoted by ABC News, the manuscript was the first book Harper Lee submitted and her original 1950s editor who suggested that she rewrite it from the perspective of Scout as a child. This purportedly new book then is an unpublished, nay rejected, manuscript that was the leaping off point for what became Mockingbird.   This is emphatically not a carefully constructed companion volume to Harper Lee’s opus.

Of course it’s possible that this lost or forgotten manuscript has just resurfaced. Of course it’s possible that the 88-year-old author might truly want it published. People can change. They can certainly change their minds. Ms. Lee’s friend and attorney Tonja Carter has worked closely with Alice Lee for a very long time and is a person that Ms. Lee trusts. I refuse to believe that she would take advantage of the elderly and frail author. But still something feels uncomfortable here.

But it’s tantalizing to think about reading a story about the adult Scout. Just as it’s tantalizing to think that somewhere J.D. Salinger has squirreled away a fifty-year saga of the Glass family. God help us if that turns up someday.

Here’s what I think. For more than 50 years Harper Lee chose to present her viewpoint, her story as To Kill a Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense to me that she would now look to publish what could be described as a previously rejected manuscript to support what has always been viewed as a fully formed statement in Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense.  Except, of course, that there is a great deal of money to be made here. According to ABC News the forthcoming book is “in the top 10 on barnesandnoble.com” and the publisher has set a “first printing of 2 million copies. “ This might be a good moment to mention that the ivory tower of book publishing also a business. And it’s a basic fact. Business need to make money.

What is the real story?   Is it possible that the media is improperly reporting that story now? I just don’t know. But I’m deeply uncomfortable. If Harper Lee is impaired in some way or has made the choice to publish this book either under duress of some kind to read this forthcoming book smacks of voyeurism to me.

I won’t do it.

What I will do is reread To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this small way I hope to honor the work and legacy of the very private and very courageous Harper Lee.

Note:

Above image from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley

DREAM OF WHO YOU’LL BE

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I’ve fallen in love not once but dozens—no, a multitude–of times. And that devotion has been returned hundreds of times over; each time I’ve turned the pages. All of us bookish people are like that, I guess. Passionate. Committed. And in some cases, really besotted. I just am.

But let’s face it, there’s always that sense of, if not “wearing your heart on your sleeve” it’s “brandishing your book like a shield.” Like so many other things about us, the clothes we choose to wear, the cars we choose to drive, the movies we choose to watch send out signals to the rest of the world, help define us. So too with the books we read.

It’s not really fair is it? All of us deserve the right to read something junky or lascivious or mysterious or politically charged if we so choose. People’s relationships with books, no matter what they read, is a very private matter as far as I’m concerned. It’s why, in the era before e-readers, subway riders smuggled their reading material around in little blank book jackets. A modicum of privacy in a very public space. But sadder still is the opposite—people who read, or at least brandish—books that they think they look good reading.

Anyone who can immerse herself so completely in a book that walking into walls becomes a very real hazard can’t be overly concerned with looking good by reading the book of the moment. And I’m not. Which is why I read, why I’ve always read, among other things, children’s books.

For me reading children’s books, everything from The Wind in the Willows to The Seven Silly Eaters, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Quarrelling Book, from The Nutshell Library to The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Story Book (the list is endless, trust me) is not about reliving my childhood. It’s about being a glutton for good writing. And good writing of any sort is not just meant to be read but reread.

The best children’s books authors, think Margaret Wise Brown, Arnold Lobel, Charlotte Zolotow or Kevin Henkes, write poetry on a page. There can be no wasted words in great children’s books, no pandering, no puffery. It always makes me laugh when the celebrity of the moment (or that celebrity’s publicist) decides said celebrity needs to write a children’s book thinking it’s an easy fame grab. So many have done it, from Billy Crystal to Katie Couric, from Madonna to Whoopi Goldberg. They have no idea that they are wading into what is perhaps the most difficult writing form of all. The celebrity books flash fast and fizzle. The notable exception as a writer is Jamie Lee Curtis, whose quirky, funny and deeply felt books transcend celebrity. (see: When I Was Little: A Four Year Old’s Memoir of Her Youth)

Moreover, great children’s books are really written for children, without a smirk, a  hidden agenda or a knowing wink aimed at an adult audience.  I’d argue strenuously that’s even the case for the immensely complex books of Lewis Carroll, including the marvelous Alice in Wonderland. After all, Lewis Carroll himself said (in response to a letter written in 1880 about The Hunting of the Snark and reprinted in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Snark) “I have a letter from you . . . asking me why don’t I explain the Snark?, a question I should have answered long ago. Let me answer it now—‘because I can’t. Are you able to explain things which you yourself don’t understand?”

And so I read and I reread, swirling deeper and deeper into some of my favorites each time. I remember who I was when I first read those words. I think I about who I am now. Beyond that I don’t analyze. I do something much more difficult. I feel.

Find your own favorites. Read them again. Remember who you were. Think about who you are. Dream of who you’ll be. There still is no better way to do it.

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A (very) short list of a few of my favorites:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Quarreling Book by Charlotte Zolotow

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll